Realities Of Life On The U.S.-Mexico Border

August 20 [Wed], 2014, 19:16

Guests Ted Robbins, national correspondent, NPR Monica Weisbrg-Stewart, owner of Gilberto's Discount House in McAllen, Tex. Carlos Flores, English professor at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Tex.

While Washington and the nation debate how to best handle immigration, those who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border have their own perspectives. For some residents of border towns, the national debates don't reflect the realities of their lives along the border.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.

Arizona's tough, new immigration law continues to fix national attention on the debate over immigration. A new New York Times-CBS poll found that a wide majority of Americans feel that U.S. immigration policy needs an overhaul, and that despite the public protests condemning Arizona's approach, just over half of Americans support that law.

But while Washington and the nation debate how best to handle the policy questions, many who live and work along the U.S.-Mexico border have their own challenges and perspectives, and often feel the national debates don't reflect the realities of their lives along the border.

In a moment, we'll talk to people with two different walks of life, from border communities in Texas. And if you live near the U.S.-Mexico border, we want to hear from you. What don't we know about life in border communities? Does the national debate around immigration reflect your experience? Tell us your story.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is . And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour: As the accused Times Square car bomber appears in federal court, we'll look at the SUV full of clues that led police to his door. A former bomb squad investigator joins us.

But first, we go to Arizona. Joining me now is NPR correspondent Ted Robbins. He covers the Southwest, and he joins me now from Tucson.

So there's an impact, to be sure. Advocates say it's not as great as it would be if we were to ignore public education or public health.

ROBERTS: We're obviously having this conversation in the context of the U.S. side of the border, but one of the things we've been trying to understand about this area is that, you know, Mexico's right there. What sort of perspective can you give us about the effects of this same phenomenon, the illegal immigration, from the Mexican side of the border?

ROBBINS: Yeah, I'm really glad you asked that because the border implies - the term border implies that there are two sides. For instance, all the illegal immigrants who are picked up are taken and dropped off at the border. And in this case - in the case of the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona - they're dropped off, and they have been overwhelming the other - the social services on the other side. They just cross the border, and there they are. And most of these folks are not from the north of Mexico these days. They're from the south, from Chiapas or from central Zacatecas, and they're poor. That's why they're coming. And they get dropped off. It's as though a New Yorker were dropped off in the middle of, you know, Nebraska. And you know, where do you go? And you seek out social services.

So I think that that's a very astute point, that the services are being overwhelmed on the other side.

ROBERTS: And in terms of immigrants being dropped off, as you say, just over the border, how much does that happen? How has the, sort of curve of enforcement been looking over the last couple of years?

ROBBINS: Happens every day, many times a day. Busloads of - busloads, literally busloads are dropped off, you know, almost every hour, at points all across the border. Enforcement has gone up. I mean, you've got about 20,000 Border Patrol agents here, and that's along the entire border. But you've got huge, you know, places that are in between ports of entry that don't have much enforcement still. Those are the harsher places.

ROBBINS: Where it's - exactly. And they've been pushed into those areas on purpose by - away from places like San Diego, for instance. And I just want to make one point, that the government estimates - our government estimates that up to - perhaps more - but 40 to 60 percent of all of those people in this country illegally came in legally through ports of entry on visas, and they overstayed their visas. So those are not people who are climbing fences. Those are not people who are crossing through the desert. You know, many of them are, but we have to keep that in mind - that no fencing, nothing is going to keep those people out. And those could be of any nationality.

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting, Ted Robbins, when you look at the New York Times-CBS poll. One of the things that Americans do seem to agree on, when there's not a lot of consensus around this issue, is that more needs to be done in terms of enforcing current laws. And if what you're describing - of, you know, busloads of people being deported every day - where is the disconnect? Is it in a lack of information? Is it that enforcement seems like a nice thing to rally behind?

ROBBINS: It would be tough. You've got people who are in here - let's take the 40 to 60 percent who are here on visa overstays. Nobody knows where those people are. I mean, the federal immigration authorities couldn't find them, I suspect, if they wanted to because in this country, you don't register with the police when you enter the country, as you do in some countries. And they're - so far, there wasn't - there is a program for exit tracking, so we know when people leave. Then we would at least know, you know, that they were still here. That hasn't been implemented. That was supposed to be implemented -I think, at this point, three to five years ago, and it hasn't been implemented yet.

So you'd have to have a lot more agents knocking on a lot more doors if you were actually going to try to pull people out of the shadows.

ROBERTS: So where do the estimates come from in terms of how many people are actually crossing the border illegally?

ROBBINS: Actually crossing the border illegally, meaning through the desert, for instance? They come from the Border Patrol, and the Border Patrol uses a figure called apprehensions, which is not discrete individuals. That's, you know - one person could be caught 10 times, and that would be 10 apprehensions.

And apprehensions have dropped, absolutely, and most people agree that it's the economy that has caused that to happen, that the number of people trying to cross is down. And the number of people migrating - going back and forth, which used to be pretty common - that's dropped. So that people who are already in this country illegally are staying and not - say, returning to, for instance, Mexico for the holidays and then coming back because it's so difficult now.

ROBERTS: Ted Robbins is an NPR national correspondent. He joined me today from Tucson, Arizona. Thank you so much.

ROBERTS: Joining me now on the line is Monica Weisberg-Stewart. She owns Gilberto's Discount House, which is a retail shop in McAllen, Texas. She also chairs the immigration and border security committee for the Texas Border Coalition, which is a group of business organizations and municipal leaders from Texas towns and cities on the Mexico border. Today, she joins me by phone from Rochester, Minnesota, but thanks for being here on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. MONICA WEISBERG-STEWART (Owner, Gilberto's Discount House; Chair, Immigration and Border Security Committee, Texas Border Coalition): Thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: I understand your business in McAllen, which is only a few miles from the Mexico border, has traditionally relied pretty heavily on Mexican shoppers.

Ms. WEISBERG-STEWART: Well, actually, the business on the border as a whole relies on Mexico and the United States, and 60 percent of my business relies on the Mexicans coming over and shopping at my store.

You know, there's an old saying that goes that if the United States has a problem - or has a cold, sneezes, we have a cold. But if the Mexican government has a problem, we have pneumonia. And you know, that kind of describes it, where the border area depends on both economics in order to make things work.

In my business, personally, I've downsized. We've been in business for over 55 years and what I've done is, I've actually leased out part of my property and actually downsized my business because I believe I can do the same amount in less amount of square footage.

You see, business like in any business, if your business is down a certain percentage, you're going to do whatever you need to do to change that business out in order to keep business coming in.

ROBERTS: Monica Weisberg-Stewart is the owner of Gilberto's Discount House in McAllen, Texas, and the chair of the immigration and border security committee for the Texas Border Coalition. She joined today by phone from Rochester, Minnesota. Thank you so much.

We turn now to another Texas border town. Carlos Flores teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas. He's also the author of "Our House on Hueco," a novel about tensions between an Anglo and Latino family in a Texas border community. He joins me now from his office in Laredo. Welcome to the program.

FERDINAND: Well, it seems to me, when I watch the general media, that there's just a whole lot of it's sort of a black or white issue. It's really not that. It's so intertwined; the border cultures on both side are so intertwined, Texas I mean, the United States with Mexico. It's really hard to separate the economies and everything. But one of the things that I do know, and I experience, is there is a tremendous amount of illegal and violent things happening in Mexico, and on this side of the border, that are all connected.

And people just seem to look the other way. I'm very concerned, and people that live there are very concerned, about the safety of people, about the well-being of our country for people that wanted to smuggle weapons into this country. It wouldn't be that hard to do. And most of it's controlled with the criminal gangs of Mexico that control virtually all crime. They call them drug gangs, but it's really - they're just criminals, and they control every facet of it.

So when we have people come through our ranch that are illegal aliens, a lot of times that's all controlled by the drug gangs. They make them carry drugs to guide them into this country - part of the deal. It's all that sort of thing, and a lot of the people coming across, we've been told by the Border Patrol, don't touch them, don't let them get near you. A lot of them are bringing diseases that we don't know what they have. So don't ever touch them.

Nobody seems to ever talk about those things. And I think there are just a lot of those issues. I personally can't go to the ranch without having a pistol. I carry a pistol. I wouldn't let my wife or friends go down there by themselves, without somebody that can guard them. And this is in the United States that we have to act like that.

ROBERTS: Ferdinand, thank you so much for your call. We are talking this hour about stories along the U.S.-Mexico border. Let's hear from Tracy(ph) in Casper, Wyoming, which is not on the border. Tracy, welcome to the program.

TRACY: I would just like to make a couple of comments. Mexicans dont have leprosy, for one. You can touch them. They're not full of diseases. That's kind of rude to say something like that. But first of all, I actually went down to Mexico with my husband, who actually is illegal. And we tried to start our paperwork for immigration the legal way, and go back to Mexico and start it. And it is quite the lengthy process. It's about five years. And on our way back down to Mexico, where he is from, we were actually kidnapped by the police department themselves. And...

TRACY: Yeah. We were in Oaxaca. Matter of fact, the national - we were on our way to Oaxaca, Mexico, and we were kidnapped in Veracruz, Poza Rica, by the police department down there, and they actually got into my car with me. And they held me and my husband separate from each other for a little over two hours until we paid $2,000 cash. And they asked me if my infant son had a passport and if he wouldnt have had a passport, they would have taken him and they would have sold him. And we were scared to death. We had to hide from the police because they were just waiting for us in every town we came to. And we finally made it to our house, and we couldnt even drive our car around. They knew we were there. And we were robbed in three different towns before we were kidnapped by - and they were all by police officers. They were real police officers.

And it's hard to make a living down there. And now - I've never been out of the country, but when I actually went down there, I didnt expect it to be as bad as it was. And now I know why 9 million Mexicans cross the border every year, as you...

TRACY: He's illegal. We're in the middle of the paperwork. We had to come back home and start it up here because they werent - we couldn't go anywhere to start anything. They were going to kill us or kidnap us.

ROBERTS: Tracy, thank you for your call. Carlos Flores, we're hearing a lot of fear and mistrust and violence in these stories from our callers. Carlos Flores, are you still there?

ROBERTS: Yeah. It might be a coincidence that the calls that we've just heard first, that - there's a lot of fear and violence. Is that the way you would characterize the culture of the border?